Umberto Eco, in his article, "The Wolf and the Lamb - The Rhetoric of Oppression" (from which the title to this article is borrowed), posits that often enough, an oppressor - such as a dictator - would try to legitimise his oppression. He or she will even try "to obtain the consensus of those he is oppressing, or to find someone who will justify it" by using "rhetorical arguments to justify his abuse of power."
(At this juncture, I would like to add to Eco's example of an oppressor. In addition to a dictator, I would add a "totalitarian democrat", who is a so called leader elected through a controlled democratic process. I would also add to the list what Rawls terms as the "benevolent absolutist").
The need for legitimisation of an act or acts of oppression, to my mind, stems from the desire to justify such acts which in turn is driven by purely egoistical motivation, or perhaps is due to a deep feeling of guilt. Added to that must be the desire to gain acceptance of the people and to pander to the middle class intellectual probing.
Whatever the reason for the attempt to legitimise, at the end of the day, the rhetoric of the oppressor, to the reasonable and probing minds, would often come out as completely lame and curious - sometimes even ridiculous, stupid and laughable - babbles.
That is because of the nature of the oppressor. He is so used to getting and doing what he wants without so much of a necessity to justify any of his actions. He thus develop this inability to answer properly when questioned; to engage when called to question; to debate when argued against.
The oppressor rules with absolute subservience from his minions. He is the supreme leader. He is an idol of the people. His wishes are his people's commands. All the years of absolutism contributes to his feeling of being infallible. That in turn numbs his mind and thought process.
Darwin's evolution theory has proven that when any particular biological or physical mechanism is not used or needed for some time, it will soon disappear from the being. That is true with the oppressor. Soon, he ceases from being a thinking creature.
All that matters to him is the untold power which he wields. And the idolatry which he enjoys.
Thus the legitimisation of his acts is actually unnecessary. It is not a rational act. Or a rationalisation process. There is no need for such process. Because at the end of the day, all that matters to the oppressor is the achievement of a goal. And that is already assured and ensured. Not much care is then needed in the process of legitimisation.
Being so, when an oppressor tries to legitimise his oppression through rhetoric, it often sounds curious and ridiculous to the reasonable people. Needless to say, they often fall flat.
Eco, in his work, gives us a classic "pseudorhetoric of oppression" in the form of Phaedrus' fable of the wolf and the lamb.
In the tale, a thirsty wolf and a lamb came to a stream. The wolf was drinking upstream and the lamb was downstream. The wolf, ever the oppressor that he was, sought to start a quarrel.
"Why are you muddying the water I am drinking?", said the wolf.
If we stopped here, we could see the utter ridiculousness of the would-be oppressor's starting line. How could the lamb, who was downstream, muddy the water which the wolf was drinking upstream? But the wolf, as with any oppressor, does not care about reasonableness of arguments. Reasonableness is only for the weak.
The lamb, however, represents a picture of reasonableness, when he sought to rationalise with the wolf. He answered, "I am sorry, but how could I do that? I am drinking the water that has passed you first."
That is a polite answer. It is also an answer which any sensible member of a civilised society would offer to the oppressor's rhetoric. Faced with such sensible - and probably irrefutable - rebuttal, the wolf changes the goal post and employs another line of attack.
"Six months ago, you talked about me behind my back," charged the wolf.
To the reasonable mind, this is something which is totally unrelated to the first line of attack. It reflects the oppressor's inability to engage in any meaningful debate about a stand taken by him. When faced with such situation, the oppressor would create a new attack in a reckless manner.
The recklessness in the oppressor's reply shows when the lamb said, "but I wasn't even born yet six month ago!".
Again, the oppressor's inability is exposed. He is shamed but not ashamed. That is due to the power which he wields and the obvious differences in physical prowess between the oppressor and the oppressed. The wolf would again change his charge.
The wolf, this time with impatience, said, "by Hercules, then it was your father who spoke badly of me."
With that statement, the wolf pounced on the lamb, killing it before eating it up.
Regardless of the simplicity of the tale, the reflection of the oppressor's mind and how it works in that tale is paralysingly frightening. The almost nonchalant attitude towards the exercise of extreme power by the strong and mighty over the weak and meek is symptomatic of any oppression.
Throughout the Malay classical literature, we could see for example, the child Hang Nadim, who saved Temasek from the dreaded "ikan todak" (sword fish"), being executed for being too smart and therefore a possible threat to the Sultan. When Hang Tuah was perceived as being favoured by the Sultan more than any others, he was accused to have partied with the Sultan's "gundek" (concubine) and he was sentenced to death.
In not too far a time before, for some reason or other, the regime wanted Tun Salleh, the Lord President, be sacked. That was the opening line as provided by the wolf. To which, Tun Salleh asked, "why?"
The answer was, "because you have signed a resignation letter."
The reply was, "but I have changed my mind, because I was under pressure."
The final rebuttal, before Tun Salleh was dismissed was, "you have to resign because you have abused your power by bring your son to the authority to request a fishery license. You also have to be sacked because you promote Islam and Islamisation in your judgments and speeches."
The utter ridiculousness and unreasonableness of the rhetoric did not matter. Because the oppressor had no ability to rationalise. Nor did he see the need to do so.
Later, Anwar Ibrahim had to go as the DPM.
"What did I do?", asked Anwar. That was the sensible and reasonable lamb asking the wolf who was starting a fight.
Just like the wolf accusing the lamb of bad mouthing him six months ago, Anwar was told that he had to go because he had committed sodomy.
The lamb, in the fable above said he wasn't even born yet six months ago.
Anwar, said "but the apartment in which I was to have committed sodomy wasn't even completed yet at the time you said I committed sodomy!"
Notice the uncanny similarities between the fable and the event which had actually happened?
Faced with that, the oppressor changed his story, just like the wolf. "Okay, but you did commit sodomy at that place on a different date. And I have the mattress too."
With that, the lamb was pounced on, killed and eaten up.
Contemporary Malaysia is filled with stories of oppression and denied justice. The rhetoric of oppression has been perfected and repeated to utter death.
"You are too noisy and please shut up," said the wolf.
"What have I done?", asked the people.
"You have insulted Islam and are a threat to national security," came the answer.
Or, "you have to be detained for your own safety," came the mind-numbingly curious answer.
I could go on and on. But I would just sound like a horribly scratched CD.
The question is, what is the lamb going to do about it?
What is the lamb going to do about it?
* Based on Umberto Eco's "The Wolf and the Lamb - The Rhetoric of Oppression" (Turning Back The Clock, Harvill Secker, 2007).